Oxford and the poisoned fruits of a meritocratic ideology

Some of you, even if you don’t attend Oxford University, may have seen a pair of student-generated websites which have gone viral recently.  The first, and the most significant, was I Too Am Oxford, where ethnic minority students shared the stories that demonstrated how ‘students in their daily encounters at Oxford are made to feel different and Othered from the Oxford community.’  In response came a Tumblr called We Are All Oxford, which offered counter-examples of racial comity and inclusiveness and has been widely mocked, not least because of the fact that it appears to be dominated by white people.

I don’t doubt that the contributors to We Are All Oxford meant well (disclaimer: I am acquainted with a number of them, and on quite friendly terms with at least one).  But to me it reflects the willful blindness of many Oxford students to structural injustice in their midst.  From the moment you first apply to the moment you leave, the message you receive is that Oxford is a meritocratic place – and I think that is, broadly, true.  A lot of students, especially those with a social conscience, are involved in access work to broaden the pool of applicants.  And Oxford is a reasonably socially mixed place, especially at postgraduate level – though it’s worth saying that my group of friends from undergraduate came exclusively from state-educated and foreign students, who together make up only 70% of Oxford’s undergraduate entry.

But the very idea of meritocracy in our admissions system, while not denying structural injustice and discrimination in wider society, says that it shouldn’t act to remedy these.  This, and perhaps resistance in the face of popular misconceptions about Oxford, sets the tone for a kind of consensus among an overwhelmingly white, middle-class and liberal-minded student population which propounds Oxford’s glorious meritocracy and openess in an almost evangelical tone.  Sometimes, the result in unsettling – to deny discrimination, prejudice and inequality among us.  One of the We Are All Oxford contributors boasts that half of her PPE cohort at Univ (my college) are BME.  But if I remember rightly there was a grand total of zero Afro-Carribean students in my year of around 120 people, not a single black face on that matriculation photograph. 

This was the kind of hard truth that I Too Am Oxford was trying to point out, smoothed over by a kind of ignorant, patronising boosterism.  We try so hard!  We have liberation officers in our JCR (who usually do nothing)!  We spend so much money!  And yet the whole thing is an exercise in shutting down the inconvenient voices of People of Colour.  It also concentrates, rather tellingly, on admissions rather than the experiences of ethnic minority students once they’ve got into the University.  The system is fair, we are reasonable people (with a few bad apples, of course) – no need to look further.

We need to have the conversation which I, Too, Am Oxford tried to open.  In fact, it needs to become louder and sharper, to ask searing questions.  It does not need to be shut down by comforting bromides, an approach which not only threatens to silence the voices of an outrageously underrepresented group in our community but will do Oxford’s reputation little good in the long term.

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